Emotions reach fever pitch on campaign trail

October 21, 1990|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Sun Staff Correspondent

MARDAN, Pakistan -- Her prominent features almost entirely shielded by a traditional head scarf and tinted sunglasses, she sits on a wooden stage in this dusty, impoverished town 25 miles away from the Afghanistan border, with a cup of tea balanced serenely on her lap.

At her feet, members of the Pakistani news media push and shove to get ever closer. Well-wishers scramble to give her prayers written on scraps of paper, which she tucks under a rubber band around her right wrist. Stretched before her far into the distance, an expanse of jostling supporters chant over and over in a rhythmic low hum, "One God, one prophet, Benazir is innocent."

Her father, Pakistan's leader for six years in the 1970s, was executed by the military regime that followed his. Both her brothers are accused terrorists: One was killed by poison, the other is in exile. Her mother is said to be in self-exile overseas. Her husband is in jail on a kidnapping charge. She herself faces six different charges of corruption.

But Benazir Bhutto -- a 37-year-old mother of two small children who became the first woman to lead a modern Islamic state before losing power in a constitutional coup -- is about to do what she does best: play to 25,000 or more peasants who have come from miles around and waited hours in the hot sun just to get the barest glimpse of her.

"Daughter of democracy," a local politician, warming up the already heated crowd, screams into the stage microphone.

"Ben-NAH-zeer," the swirling mass replies on cue in long, low tones, as if praying.

"Leader of the poor."

"Ben-NAH-zeer."

"Leader of the dispossessed."

"Ben-NAH-zeer."

Rising to the microphone, her voice strained, she meets the now-roaring crowd with her own words: "I have come to give you your freedom. . . . I will lead you to freedom. . . . Your enemies are my enemies.

"The voice of this country is not the voice of Ghulam Ishaq Khan," she proclaims, her voice seeming to gain strength with the attack on Pakistan's president, the man who dismissed her government Aug. 6.

"It is the voice of the people, that of the laborers. . . . The voice of the arrow," she cries, invoking one of her party's symbols.

"Arrow . . . arrow . . . arrow," continues the crowd, even as she and her small campaign party fight their way down off the platform and through a surge of supporters surrounding her four-wheel-drive vehicle.

Guards, perched on the Mitsubishi's rear bumper with AK-47 machine guns slung over their shoulders, kick at those who would cling to her car.

And 45 minutes after she arrived like a sudden storm, Ms. Bhutto is gone again -- on to the next stop, the next group waiting desperately.

With campaign time running out before Pakistan's national elections Wednesday, it is a show of high emotion and little substance that will be repeated at more than a half-dozen stops this day -- last Thursday -- along 20 miles of road from Mardan to Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier province.

The province, a stronghold of fundamentalist Islamic beliefs, is by no means the exclusive territory of Ms. Bhutto, whose party represents a moderate form of Islamic socialism. But the roadside is papered with her banners, and the road itself jammed by her procession of supporters, standing on the flatbeds of trucks, crammed into horse carts and battered buses.

Asked how she will live with her opponents in Pakistan's military if her party gains enough seats to again make her prime minister, she talks, dryly and elliptically, about the political equations resulting from what many here perceive as the most likely outcome of the vote: a hung parliament with no clear choice for prime minister.

All this is just part of "Pakistan's perennial problem," she concludes, "the inability of the people to accept martial law and the inability of the establishment to accept a democratic government."

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